24 Jan 2010 - "The Conversion of Paul"
We have just come to the end of the week of prayer for Christian Unity, and I thought that it was appropriate that we celebrate this evening the minor festival of the Conversion of St Paul, for two reasons. Firstly, Paul’s ministry and his development of a theology of the Gospel which still speaks to us today through his letters, has a lot to say to us about Christian Unity.
Secondly, on a human level, the account of Paul’s conversion gives us hope – no matter how wrong we may have got things, there is always the chance for repentance and a return to following Christ.
Let’s face it, Paul got things spectacularly wrong. He was convinced that the new Christian sect was a dangerous departure from the Jewish faith and must be stamped out. Paul was a devout Jew – a Pharisee who was zealous for the Lord – someone who believed fervently that when God finally sent a Messiah to rescue his people Israel they had to be observant – they had to obey the Torah, to keep God’s covenant in order to become part of God’s new Kingdom. He believed that the Christian sect had got it completely wrong. The Messiah had not arrived – how could Jesus be the Messiah, he had been crucified by the Pagan Romans. More-over his followers were not even keeping Torah.
So, thus it was Paul was on the road to Damascus, intent on stamping out this dangerous sect that put the future of Israel at risk. Then came the shocking revelation – Jesus was alive! How could this be? This vision of the risen Jesus shocked him into realizing that he was acting against God’s plans and turned him around completely from being an enemy of the emerging Jesus movement into one of its most passionate evangelists.
Paul had at the heart of his faith in God the prophesies of Isaiah that the Lord would send a Messiah to redeem his people, but he didn’t expect this to happen through the death and resurrection of just one man, he expected the coming of God’s new Kingdom to bring the resurrection of all God’s faithful covenant people, followed by the flocking of the gentiles to Mount Zion to learn the Torah from Israel – God’s light to the nations.
God had a different plan – and shocked Paul into the realization that his world view was not the same as God’s. So - the first good news in this story is that God didn’t give up on Paul when he was at odds with God’s vision for the world; he didn’t just intervene to ensure that the new Christian movement survived, he acted to turn Paul from persecutor to apostle. God will not give up on us either – he has a plan for all of us. As Isaiah says, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mothers womb he named me” Isaiah’s prophesy came particularly true with Jesus, but it also applies to all who he calls to his service. So, even when we are at odds with God, God loves us and claims us.
In fact, the passage from Isaiah can speak directly to us – God also calls us to do our part in bringing the good news of his love and salvation to the world. God also calls us to conversion, to repentance, to turn around to follow him - we are grasped, time after time, in an encounter with the risen Christ and shown the vision that God has for our part in his mission.
Paul's conversion alone would not be enough of a reason to celebrate his life with a Church festival. It was his radical understanding of both the calling of his own people, the Jews, and the good news for all the peoples of the earth that makes Paul stand out. If we hadn’t had Paul’s thoughts and his developed theology of the Gospel, we wouldn’t be the church we are today.
The radical center of Paul's preaching is that in Jesus, the covenant God made with Israel has reached its climax. Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham has written a really good book – “What St Paul really said”, which explores this theme further. To summarise, Tom Wright believes that Paul understood that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the God who acted in Jesus Christ are one and the same. Paul saw that God had fulfilled his covenant promises through Jesus. Through the resurrection of Jesus, God’s kingdom has begun. Jesus is the first to be resurrected – to be followed in due course by all those who believe in him.
Following on from this, Paul extends the understanding of God's love in Christ Jesus to all peoples of the earth. Paul thought that the vocation of Israel as a light to the world was fulfilled as all the peoples of the earth are drawn into the community of God through Jesus Christ.
He argued, successfully, with other early leaders that it is no longer circumcision or the keeping of Torah, but rather the Gospel itself that binds people together. Thus, Gentiles who are baptized into the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are baptized into the story of the Gospel itself are now part of the Gospel community.
This has been a source of struggle and argument for the people of God ever since. We seem to be as disjointed and disparate, as a group of Christians, as any major religion can be. We argue about most anything, from human sexuality and how to live as Christians to what we believe and the truth of the core Gospel message. In the midst of this we have something to learn from St. Paul and his message after his conversion – which was simply the confession that all make at baptism – Jesus is the Son of God. Everything flows from this – all who accept Jesus as the Messiah, the first fruits of God’s Kingdom are welcome at God’s table. God loves and calls everyone.
So, at this end of our annual week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we do well to remember that despite the things that we think divide us as Christians, this confession of faith unites us in the Gospel, just as it united the other Apostles and Paul so long ago during their discussions as to how to welcome gentiles into the new Christian community.
And the good news goes far beyond this. It is, simply, that the risen Lord Jesus continues to seek out and encounter a lost and hostile humanity in surprising and startling ways. Our “Damascus Road ” experiences happen as we too are brought to see the risen Lord through Word, Sacrament, or even by occasional extraordinary encounter. We may be blinded and confused momentarily, but in the end, we too are called by God to share the wonderful news that the risen Jesus, the Son of God, is Messiah and his kingdom includes all peoples. When all humanity shares this experience of the risen Lord, we will be one indeed. Until that day, we hope, we pray for unity, and we give thanks for Paul and all the saints who have caught and shared glimpses of the risen Lord with us.